Peace Works: The Citizen's Role in Ending the Cold War.
Amy Swerdlow's full account of Women Strike for Peace (WSP) fills an important gap in the history of the American peace movement in the 1960s. Other historians have detailed the transformation of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) from its founding in the late 1950s to its role as a leading voice against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, but virtually nothing has been written about WSP.(2) Even Charles DeBenedetti's full history of the Vietnam antiwar movement, which includes several chapters on its pre-1965 roots, barely mentions WSP either as a forerunner of or participant in the anti-Vietnam protest.(3)
The catalyst that prompted the founding of WSP in late 1961 was the Soviet Union's renewal of atmospheric nuclear tests and the U.S. declaration that it would soon follow suit. First organized by a few handfuls of women in the Washington, D.C. area, many of whom were members of SANE, WSP developed spontaneously into a nationwide movement. Women, especially mothers, flocked to WSP mainly in reaction against the fallout from these tests, which threatened to contaminate milk with radioactive Strontium 90. The image of middle-class, neatly dressed ladies picketing and marching to save their children and the planet gave the organization respectability and helped to legitimize a "radical" critique of the arms race.
Although Swerdlow was actively involved in WSP from the start, her account is serious history. A "red-diaper" baby, she frankly acknowledges the influences in her upbringing that propelled her, like many other white, middle-class, suburban housewife-mothers, into the movement. She asserts, however, that her book is not a memoir because she was "not a conscious or systemetic observer" of WSP activities (p. 10). Her personal involvement, however, gives the prose a greater immediacy and sharper focus than a more detached history could provide. Her research is in fact very thorough. She did not, for example, simply cite the group's own literature and press releases to document its activities and successes, which she might easily have done (she edited WSP's national newsletter for a time), but turned to other sources, particularly private correspondence and newspapers; nor did she rely solely on elite media sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post but consulted local newspapers for accounts of peace action in these cities.
While generally admiring of the organization, Swerdlow also mentions some of its limitations, particularly the members' naivete about international politics and WSP's loose structure (an early chapter explains the advantages of its "nonorganization"). She also used personal interviews of participants to good effect, showing WSP leaders as ordinary women who became deeply involved in a cause and made a difference.(4)
Swerdlow is less sure of the group's effectiveness on government policymakers, but she reveals that President Kennedy twice responded sympathetically to questions about the group's activities at his press conferences. Moreover, the women elicited guarded responses to their identical appeals to Jacqueline Kennedy and Nina Khrushchev to persuade their husbands to stop nuclear testing. She also details the international dimension of the women's efforts, which involved, first, the sending of a delegation of fifty women to the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee in Geneva in early 1962, where their lobbying, along with complementary delegations of Soviet and European women, resulted in several meetings with the U.S., Soviet, and other nations' negotiating teams at which they forcefully stated their positions. In the same year WSP sent a delegation to Moscow to attend a meeting of the Soviet Women's Committee. That controversial decision nearly split the movement and subjected it to more than usual red-baiting at home, but the American participants maintained their independence while nourishing East-West dialogue among women.
Swerdlow's account of Women Strike for Peace's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in December 1962 elucidates the practical orientation of the peace group. The contrast between the WSP position, which was characterized by good humor and refusal to name names, and that of SANE, which earlier had been intimidated to expel those who took the Fifth Amendment, is by implication at least damning to the latter. Immediately following the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963), WSP campaigned against the multilateral nuclear force for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and WSP delegations traveled to Hanoi and Djakarta to meet with women professionals from North and South Vietnam.
Swerdlow did not consult government records to see whether the Kennedy or Johnson administration senior officials referred to the group at its internal discussions or in memoranda. My own limited research suggests that while Kennedy often worried about public opposition to nuclear testing, neither he nor his close advisers mentioned specific peace groups as cause for concern.(5)
A limitation in Swerdlow's history is its failure to probe more deeply into the nuclear testing question. The Limited Test Ban Treaty still permitted underground nuclear tests, which continued virtually uninterrupted for the next thirty years. In sustaining the weapons laboratories and the modernization of nuclear armaments, continued testing fueled the arms race. Whether WSP understood the dangers of testing and the urgent need for a comprehensive test ban is not discussed in Swerdlow's account. To be sure, the escalating Vietnam War soon deflected WSP's attention toward other concerns, especially its opposition to conscription; but in the absence of evidence on the testing issue, the reader is likely to conclude that WSP's critique of U.S. militarism and the Cold War was really more moderate and superficial than radical or fundamental. There are also some factual errors and a rather jumbled chronological coverage in the latter chapters that tends to mix up the international dimensions of WSP peace action. Moreover, although Swerdlow explores the history of the relationship between feminism and peace before 1960, she suggests that WSP's politicization of maternal values was somehow new when in actuality the "maternal instinct" was a powerful ideology in the women's movement going back at least to the turn of the century.
Despite these reservations her account is persuasive. One is reminded of the story of the professor who asked his history seminar, "Can a Mormon write good Mormon history." The answer to that rhetorical question, which could apply to almost any historical subject, is in Swerdlow's case decidedly "yes."
Give Peace a Chance is a series of essays first presented at a conference at the University of Toledo in memory of Charles DeBenedetti. A prolific author in the field of peace history at that university, DeBenedetti died tragically of a brain tumor on his forty-fourth birthday in January 1987. The Toledo conference coincided with the posthumous publication of his comprehensive history of the Vietnam antiwar movement. From the many papers presented at this conference, editors Melvin Small and William Hoover selected fourteen for this work. They do not explain the criteria for their selection, but presumably their decisions had to do both with the quality of the papers and with their relevance to one of the four chosen themes: antiwar movement strategies and tactics, the relationship of the military and of women to the movement, and antiwar activity in the colleges and schools. Although each theme alone could be, and already has been, the subject of books, the essays cover major aspects and suggest other subthemes. Some were written by activists and others by former activists turned scholars (Amy Swerdlow and David Cortright, for example). Indeed, all the authors appear committed or at least strongly sympathetic to the peace movement.
In his careful investigation of the growing antiwar movement at Kent State University, Kenneth J. Heineman provides valuable background for understanding the confrontational atmosphere on the campus that led to the shootings there on May 4, 1970. Heineman shows that white student protestors at Kent State, both in terms of their social backgrounds and ideological orientation, were quite different from those at more elite universities. His essay is a model case study of the kind of microresearch that can be done to make local history relevant to the larger antiwar story. Moreover, the four essays on the impact of the war on the military are devastating. Anyone who might still believe that the military escaped rather unscathed or quickly recovered from the Vietnam debacle should find the accumulated examples of antiwar dissent at U.S. military bases and in Vietnam itself sobering.
The Vietnam antiwar activity was of course both a political and social movement. The social dimensions are better served in this volume. In addition to David Farber's instructive survey of the relationship of the counterculture to the antiwar movement, the essays on women participants are noteworthy. Alice Echols's and Nina S. Adams's accounts of the evolving interrelationships between the civil rights, antiwar, and women's liberation movements are particularly thought-provoking. Adams explains, for instance, why increasing numbers of white women left the former two movements and swelled the ranks of the nascent women's liberation movement as they became sensitized to the male-dominated Left. Using the militaristic language of macho models and political combat, the men emphasized the "smashing" of the "war machine," while disenchanted radical feminists increasingly moved in the opposite direction toward a new introspective focus on personal issues and relationships. Future case studies of individual women and groups will doubtless help to fill out, and perhaps modify, the sophisticated frameworks set forth in these essays.
An advantage of a collection of essays is the ability to examine specific themes in depth, although perhaps at the expense of the larger picture. The reader gains little sense, for example, of the longer term consequences of Vietnam on American political culture, yet Watergate and the significant role of investigative journalism, to mention just two examples, cannot be adequately understood without some perspective on the impact of the Vietnam War and the dissent it spawned. The cautionary word "exploring" in the subtitle of the book aptly describes its modest purpose.
Although John Lofland and David Cortright, the authors of the two books on the 1980s, were also active participants in the peace movement during that decade, their accounts are quite different. Lofland, a sociologist specializing in social movements, has utilized social science methodology to analyze the peace cause. The first four of the seven chapters in his book examine the "structures" of the movement, while the others cover the "processes" of the "peace surge" during the decade. In developing the seven topics in fine detail, Lofland demonstrates a sophisticated mastery of sociological theory and analysis.
Lofland's account is a problem for historians. He has dissected the peace movement in terms of abstract categories, resulting in many pieces of analysis that are not brought together into a whole picture. The narrative is chopped up into small, discrete components even within chapters. The social science jargon also contributes to the heavy going. When the reader encounters, for instance, "focusing, soaring, faltering, slumping, and percolating" as a subtitle to the chapter on "surge stages," he is prepared for a slow read.
Moreover, while the historian of social movements is interested in causes, frequencies, and consequences, Lofland's focus on definition, structures, and processes is quite different. Little interested in history, he writes: "I assume peace movement history and the relation of the 1980s surge to it" (p. 9). He also says little about the peace leaders, those activists who made things happen in the movement, or about the "freeze" and the other campaigns of the decade. He is not even particularly concerned about consequences and ventures no assessment of the effectiveness of the movement in influencing government policymakers. By contrast, the role of activists, myriad campaigns, and relative effectiveness all surely preoccupy the attention of historians researching peace movements.
Finally, the one theme that does reappear sporadically throughout the book is that of "polite protest." While its goals were idealistic, even radical, Lofland posits, the peace movement of the 1980s was noted for its civility and restraint and lacked a radical component that might have turned to more menacing tactics, including violent protest. Part of this politeness, he suggests, is that peace values inherent in the movement required nonviolent behavior. He also notes that because the movement involved topics of foreign policy, war preparations, and distant military deployments that were removed from the experiences of most people, "peace intellectuals" (p. 111) played a particularly significant role in the movement, and the professorial expertise of these intellectuals gave the movement its cordial, genteel demeanor. His explanations are surely accurate. What is missing, however, is a more general theory of protest movements with which to compare this one. In simplified form, one such theory might be that the degree and kind of protests are roughly proportional to the sense of burning injustice as perceived by ordinary citizens. Thus a petition campaign among housewives in mid-1974 to oppose the impending impeachment or resignation of President Nixon, for example, received little grass-roots support because the evidence of the chief executive's innocence was far from clear-cut, while the civil rights and Vietnam antiwar causes in the 1960s reflected the growing widespread indignation, even rage, among black and liberal Americans. Lofland's failure to make such comparisons (the publisher's promotional blurb makes this claim), especially when he believes that he is advancing social science theory, is disappointing.
The assembling and analyzing of raw data by contemporary social scientists nonetheless do advance our knowledge of peace movements. Lofland provides, for example, solid figures on funding sources for peace organizations, the numbers of nuclear resistance arrests and nuclear free zones, and the amount of media coverage to confirm the "surge soaring" and subsequent falling off of peace activism during the decade. The challenge to future historians is to integrate and interpret this data into coherent and well documented histories of the movement.
Unlike Lofland, and even more than Swerdlow, David Cortright is preoccupied with the effectiveness of the peace movement. A long-time peace activist, Cortright was executive director of SANE from 1978 to 1987 and helped to organize New York's Central Park antinuclear rally in June 1982 and other peace efforts. The questions he poses are important: Did the European and U.S. peace movements bring about arms reduction and U.S.Soviet cooperation or did the Reagan administration's "peace through strength" policies? How important were the dramatic Changes transforming the Soviet Union and to what extent were they the result of internal forces or a response to Western military pressures?
Although Cortright believes, not surprisingly, that the peace movement influenced U.S. foreign policy, his approach is sophisticated. He does not see a direct relationship between activist pressures and changes in specific government policies but an indirect effect in influencing the general political climate, especially public opinion and the legislative process. He concedes that Reagan administration officials did not publicly acknowledge the impact of peace groups and in fact occasionally discounted their influence. He also admits that other factors, such as the influence of America's allies and internal developments within the Soviet Union, helped to moderate Reagan's Cold War policies.
Nevertheless, in separate chapters he shows how the nuclear freeze campaign, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the churches, and the media and popular culture all played roles in changing public opinion. The excellent chapter on the churches is a healthy antidote to Lofland, who barely mentions the Catholic Church and slights altogether the bishop's pastoral letter (May 1993) challenging U.S. nuclear policy. Cortright persuasively argues that the pastoral letter, which endorsed the freeze position, along with a coalescence of the other pressures, indirectly resulted in a moderation of the Reagan administration's policies toward the Soviet Union. Similarly, in a well balanced discussion of the causes of the changes in the Soviet Union, he rightly stresses the importance of internal pressures more than the external Western military build-up.
The interpretations advanced in these four books should not be taken as definitive. For one thing, we may still be too close to the recent peace movements to write dispassionately about their significance. More important, readers may justifiably question the objectivity even of well researched accounts written by those personally committed to peace endeavors. Certainly scholars with a different political orientation have been much more critical in labeling the peace activists as naive or misguided.(6)
But the purpose of peace history should not be to show whether the peace advocates were right or wrong: the quest for peace has always been highly valued in civilized societies. Many of the peace leaders, remarkably talented individuals with well developed spiritual and other unique qualities, should be studied because they are interesting subject matter in their own right and provide essential ingredients for historians to make into good narrative history. Finally, historians should examine peace movements which, even if wrong-headed at times, often are the only organized opposing voice to official foreign policy and can help to sensitize other citizens and government leaders to reevaluate their assumptions and preferences about war and peace.
Peace history does not have to become a separate subfield, which might further accelerate the unhealthy "balkanization" of the history profession, but can be viewed as an integral part of social history. It is in short one of several social movements - abolitionism, women's rights, temperance, and civil rights are others - that have affected the history of American reform.(7) If future studies can develop comparisons of and relationships between peace and other reform causes, they will blur the borders between peace and social history while expanding our understanding of both.
1. The earliest pioneer was, of course, Merle Curti, whose interest in peace history began as early as the 1920s. See his essay, "Reflections on the Genesis and Growth of Peace History," Peace and Change 11 (Spring 1985): 1-18.
2. See Lawrence S. Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (1970); and Milton Katz, Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (1987).
3. Charles DeBenedetti, with Charles Chatfield, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam War Era (1990).
4. None of the dozen or so "leaders" of WSP in Swerdlow's account has an entry in either Harold Josephson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders (1985) or Warren F. Kuehl, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Internationalists (1983). Although these dictionaries included only deceased people (and all or almost all of these women were still alive when these volumes were conceived), it is questionable whether more than a few would have been considered important enough to be included in any event. So far as I could tell, for example, only Cora Weiss, who remained a peace activist into the 1980s, played a prominent role in the peace movement outside WSP or beyond the 1960s.
5. Swerdlow cites Jerome Weisner, Kennedy's science adviser, who retrospectively credited WSP with influencing the President's arms control policies. Neither "inside" histories nor memoirs of the Kennedy administration's foreign policies, however, mention peace groups as having any special impact. See, for example, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965); Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (1965); Arthur H. Dean, Test Ban and Disarmament: The Path of Negotiation (1966); John H. Barton and Lawrence D. Weiler, International Arms Control: Issues and Agreements (1976); Dean Rusk, as told to Richard Rusk, As I Saw It (1990); Glenn T. Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (1981); and Journal of Glenn T. Seaborg, 25 vols. (1989), the first six volumes of which cover the Kennedy administration. Dean was the U.S. Negotiator at the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee in Geneva, 1961-1962; Weiler was an arms control specialist in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the 1960s and early 1970s; Rusk was Secretary of State, 1961-1969; and Seaborg was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1961-1971.
Of course, as Cortright argues in his book, nonrecognition of peace activity does not necessarily mean that it had no influence; but it suggests that whatever the effects, they were likely more indirect than direct.
6. See especially Guenter Lewy's tract attacking the contemporary peace movement, Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism (1988).
7. Some of these ideas, and others too, are developed in a symposium featuring several peace historians commenting on the article by Ralph Summy and Malcolm Saunders, "Why Peace History?," Peace and Change 20 (January 1995): 7-93.
David S. Patterson, chief of the Arms Control and Economics Division, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, is presently writing a history of international mediation activity during the first World War.
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|Author:||Patterson, David S.|
|Publication:||Reviews in American History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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